Snyder house rules 

The massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich continues

Well, Governor Rick Snyder pulled it off. He got the Legislature to enact his massive tax cut for business and slap a tax on future pension income. This will be paid for — in part — by shortchanging education at all levels, from elementary to graduate school.

Film industry tax credits are out the window, as are breaks for cleaning up brownfields. This follows earlier legislation making it easier to appoint emergency financial managers, and giving them broad new powers. Public employees, especially teachers, are bound to see their benefits cut as well. All this has people in a tizzy.

Most of the business community is ecstatically happy. Most of those who care about education and the poor — or those who are part of those communities themselves — are apoplectic.

You can hardly blame them. If this state has any future, it lies not only in attracting new jobs; it is having a better-educated workforce. On top of that, the Snyder house rules continue an ominous trend in America that began with Ronald Reagan: the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. State Rep. Maureen Stapleton of Detroit put it eloquently. With Michigan struggling to recover from the long recession, "Snyder and the Legislature threaten to derail it by ramming though the largest redistribution of wealth in our state's history."

True, that. But Stapleton is not a leader in the Democratic caucus, and neither she nor her party's leadership is putting forth any kind of alternative plan. Democrats, by the way, have essentially no power whatsoever in Lansing today. But you'd think they'd offer some kind of alternative people could buy into.

That's what an opposition "shadow government" would do in most parliamentary democracies. That would give something to responsibly rally people around. But they aren't.

Yes, the Democrats are denouncing Snyder. State Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren said the governor is "shifting the tax [burden] to those who are least able to pay in society." Again, that's true enough. But why isn't his leader, the charismatic Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, putting forward a plan?

Simple. She, and they, don't want to commit to anything. Standing for something is bound to alienate somebody. They prefer to bleat "Snyder is bad," and hope to pick up the pieces when the state economy runs off the rails.

This may not be bad short-term politics. America would have voted for almost any Democrat after eight years of George W. Bush. Michigan would have voted for a spotted Republican gerbil after eight years of the vacant charisma of Jennifer Granholm.

Yet not standing for anything is not responsible policy, nor does it help people believe the system can still fix things and help them. That's why you have frustrated hordes either joining irrational protests like the so-called Tea Party movement, or wasting their energies on an almost-certainly-doomed effort to recall Snyder.

What we need is honesty, straight talk and a program to reinvent the state without trampling the poor in the dust. This state badly needs to attract new business — Snyder isn't wrong about that.

The auto industry isn't ever going to supply jobs in sufficient quantity again, and the Democrats haven't a clue of how to create any. But that doesn't mean we should leave those who are displaced to starve in desperation amid rusting abandoned machinery.

Even worse, shortchanging our kids on education and further neglecting our infrastructure is just plain stupid — even from the standpoint of job creation. Does the governor really think he is going to lure high-tech job creators to a state with king-size potholes on the roads and concrete falling off overpasses?

Does he think middle-class people are going to move to a place where the schools are inferior and declining everywhere?

Let's make shared sacrifice have some meaning, damn it. So in the absence of any intellectually coherent opposition to the Snyder reforms, let me present my program. We'll call it the Fair and Responsible Program for Michigan's Economic Reconstruction.

Leave the lowered business taxes where they are. We need to take a gamble to get new industry and jobs, and since the governor was elected on a platform of doing this, we'll try it.

However — we need to raise the Michigan Income Tax rate to make sure we provide a decent education, decent services, and an acceptable quality of life. Those of us who are still working ought to carry more of the burden. I'd boost it from 4.35 to 6 percent now.

We might index this to the unemployment rate so it gradually declines to 5 percent — but no more than that. That will raise a few hundred million dollars, but we can responsibly get much more.

Drop the sales tax from 6 to 5 percent — but extend it to most commercial services. No, not education, business-to-business or medical expenses. But if I buy four new tires, I pay sales tax on them but not on the cost of installation. That doesn't make sense.

Not having raised the beer tax for half a century, even to adjust it for inflation, makes even less sense. Beer drinkers, those with good jobs and lives, should be asked to pay a little more to help bring Michigan back. That means me, by the way, and I hope you too.

Incidentally, I am never running for office, ever, in case anyone has any suspicions. I will cheerfully and enthusiastically support anyone who supports some reasonable program that combines shared sacrifice with trying for a better future. I love this state passionately, and intend to spend my life here. So let's fix it.

Unpleasant reality: Michigan is losing a seat in Congress with the next election, and since the Republicans control every branch of government, they get to determine the shape of the new districts. Odds are that they will throw Sander Levin and Gary Peters in the same Oakland-Macomb county district.

That means that either one of them must retire, or Levin and Peters will be forced to fight to the death in the August 2012 primary. That's what happened 10 years ago, when Michigan lost another seat and Congresswoman Lynn Rivers took on John Dingell, and was squashed like a bug in the process, ending her political career.

What would happen if Peters and Levin have to take each other on? Odds would heavily favor Levin. He's been a fixture in state politics since the 1960s, and was almost elected governor in 1970, well before most of today's citizens were even born.

Yet that's not what should happen. Nobody may be willing to say this except me, but Sandy Levin should do the honorable thing in that case, and retire. Why? Because he will be 81 years old before the election. Peters will be not quite 54. He has the potential to have a long and productive career in Congress ahead of him.

Sandy Levin, one way or another, will be gone in a few years — as will almost all the rest of the Democratic congressional delegation. John Dingell will be 86 next year. Dale Kildee and John Conyers, 83. Even Sandy's kid brother, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, turns 77 next year.

Democrats and the state won't be well served if almost their entire delegation exits pretty much at once. For the long-term sake of his state and party, if it comes down to a choice between himself and Peters, Sandy Levin should do the honorable thing, and retire.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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